Tuesday, March 13, 2012

We Don't Need No Education

So this article in the New York times today makes a point that I have wanted to make here for a while - rather than any sort of "educational" purpose, college is all about creating a caste-based society.

The Reproduction of Privilege (New York Times)

Just recently I read a book I had meaning to for a long while - Twenty-Three Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang. Chang's book expertly demolishes much of the economic nonsense floating around today in simple, easy-to-understand language (it's easier to talk about economics jargon-free when using common sense). I'll have more to say about that, but one of the "things" that is particularly relevant to the theme of this web site is that more education does not necessarily lead to more prosperity. I had intended to copy some of his paragraphs down for posting because they make his points so well, but I had to return the book. I will get it later and do so. For now, I will have to describe his argument from memory.

Basically, Chang says that higher education is not only about training your workforce, it's about signaling which people will make good corporate employees. The ability to endure four more years of education, follow orders, and jump thorough the otherwise meaningless hoops that college throws at you for at least four years signals that you will be a good, obedient, malleable corporate employee.

Chang points out that this signalling feature is becoming more and more important, while the actual training received is becoming increasingly meaningless. Because lazy employers use this sorting function, as jobs become ever scarcer, people need get more and more "education" just to have a job at all! It's increasingly just about being more competitive than the next guy. Thus more education, Chang concludes, is not producing a smarter and more capable workforce, rather one in which degrees are just pieces of paper you need if you want to have a job other than shelf stacker or short-order cook. Consequently, the "more eduction" calls are just so much bullshit (my words, not his). He compares it to people standing at a stadium to get a better view, forcing everyone around them to do the same, ensuring that everyone will be standing and no one will achieve the objective (except the front row, of course). I think it's obvious that is the case today. Now we're told we need a Master's degree for even an entry level job, and if we don't have one, we have only ourselves to blame for our unemployability due to a "lack of skills."

But Chang misses one essential point. College not only about sorting by job skills. It about sorting by financial status. This is intentional. It makes sure that only the privileged class will be able to have access to be the next generation of well-paid meaningful jobs. The costliness of education is not a bug - it's a feature. Contrary to popular belief, there are only a finite number of film directors, architects, surgeons, fashion designers, corporate lawyers, art directors, CEO's, archaeologists, managerial accountants, and television personalities and the like that are needed in society, and college costs and other restrictions such as the four-year length are to ensure that only the "right" people will occupy those positions. If you did not choose your parents wisely, you need not apply. The last thing these people want is competition. College costs and duration make sure that the children of the poor do not have access to a wide variety of jobs. The article by Thomas B. Edsall only proves the point.

Elite collages are increasingly where all the new startups are emerging. If you do not have access, you will be left out.Look at Microsoft and Facebook - both started by Harvard grads who became billionaires mainly through social connections and exploiting technologies developed by others. The same is true for all sorts of other cutting edge technologies, from renewable energy, to computing, to biotech. You can see why the rich would want to limit access to these opportunities to their children of the already privileged. College is a drawbridge to riches that is pulled up after the wealthy have gotten across. And, of course, if you come from a non-elite background and try to go to college anyway, being burdened with high debt makes you easier to control, giving a second added bonus to corporations. From their standpoint, making employees pay all their educational costs is, in the jargon of the day, a "win-win" for them.

There is a larger point here, too. The actions of the Republican party only make sense if you assume that industrialization is over and the job base will be shrinking. What sense does it make to have a sick and uneducated population? Why is every institution that helps the non-wealthy masses become suitable employees being hacked away? What sense does it make to produce a workforce of dullards who lack educational skills to be good employees, and who are unable to get medical care when they are sick, decent nutrition, or put their child in a safe place while they are at work? Well, it makes perfect sense if you realize that there are not going to be jobs for them!

You have to understand that public schooling was a product of the coming of mass industrialization. It was assumed that most people would become factory workers, and even factory workers had to read job notices, follow written instructions, punch a time clock, sign their name, and do basic arithmetic on the job. Without a sizable industrial workforce, it was felt that this would not be possible.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, America became the world's factory floor, taking over from Great Britain. One of the major factors that made a country prosperous was to have a large-enough workforce to work in the factories. And the thing that made this possible was mass education. But, of course, mass education was only enough to give workers basic literacy and math skills. While that may seem odd to us today, for the majority of history prior to this most people worked the land and had no need for any of this. The majority of people who ever lived were illiterate. America was the first one to change this in a major way. So that's why the plutocrats in a country notorious for treating it's workers as disposable commodities and giving them the minimum possible labor rights decided to pay for mass literacy - not out of some high-minded ideal (which is anathema to America), but because it helped them to get rich.

However, the plutocrats were smart enough to do two things. They made sure school was merely vocational - that it made you just smart enough to do your job, but not smart enough to question the system or your place in it. In other words, it wasn't about thinking, it was about sitting still and following orders to create good little workers (based on  methods developed in Prussia). Second, they made sure they weren't the ones to pay the costs - it was fobbed off on general land owners, who, in the days before massive suburbanization were mainly the well-off. This crazy system of local property taxes funding schools continues today, and assures that your educational quality from birth is merely a lottery based on your ZIP code. It allowed the rich to pool their resources by building enclaves in the cornfields outside of town to make sure that their privileged children would get the best possible education without having to pay for anyone outside of their class (which was, I believe, the central driving force behind suburbanization and the housing bubble, but I digress...)

So with mass industrialization over, what sense does it make to educate the masses? Why, glad you asked - none whatsoever. An that's why you see the Republicans dismantling the educational system with gusto, demonizing teachers as "lazy," and "freeloaders." See, most liberals still assume we need educate the masses for the jobs of the future. The Republicans know that there will be no jobs of the future. There will only be high-end jobs, and not nearly enough of those for everyone. So who gets them? Why, the people who can afford college, silly, that's who! And how do make college affordable? By creating tax shelters for people who have enough money to put away to send their kids to college. Any attempt to regulate tuition would be "interfering" with the "free market", and we all know that's the greatest sin of all, right? And by the way, public colleges need to be defunded to provide those necessary tax cuts for corporations and investors.

Thus we see that mass evacuation is actually a bad thing from the standpoint of the elites. While they are collecting the money from investing in the startup begun by their college roomate, for most of us jobs of the future will be lawn trimmers and dog walkers for the one percent. And with people unable to go to college, you can simply claim that "lack of skills" is why these people can be had for pennies a day. And the more uneducated there are, the cheaper their labor. Restricting birth control has always been a favorite of Republicans as well - the bigger the desperate masses the better. Newt Gingrich already famously proposed taking children out of school to work a janitors. He was widely ridiculed, but maybe he was getting at something the politicians all know but don't want to tell us? Maybe he was smarter than we thought.

Are American businesses worried at all about finding suitable employes with all these educational cutbacks? Do they look worried? They can draw on students from all over the world. already they have more employees abroad than America. One one-hundredth the population of China and India can provide all their needs, and let them worry about how to pay for school. American universities are already recruiting students from abroad to pay their high tuition rates. And even bankrupt grade schools are currently auctioning empty seats to wealthy foreigners! With such a wide banquet spread to choose from, why should the rich be burdened with paying for education for Americans whom they're never going to hire anyway? Why don't the rich just save that nuisance property tax money for their own children's education?

Similarly, health care, unlike in Europe where it was instituted by central governments to create healthy societies, was a "benefit" fought for and granted to unions (Germany had national health care under Bismarck). Because most workers worked in factories and belonged to unions, private industry had no choice but to follow suit. Now, as industrialization fades, what is the motivation to provide health care for the masses, especially with the costs to companies skyrocketing? A sick worker is not productive. Of course you don't want sick employees, that will affect their job performance. But why pay to "fix" an employee when you can cast them aside and replace them with literally hundreds of desperate workers sitting on your doorstep? That makes much more sense from an economic standpoint. And if you think that the one percent don't think this way about the rest of us, please contact me personally about some Florida real estate I'd like to sell you.

High-value employees (you know ,the ones who could afford "elite" collages), will be able to afford the best health care no matter what. Hey, maybe the "singularity" will even help them live forever! As for the rest of us, we can die in a ditch for all they care. Thus we see the motivation for fighting against "Obamacare" specifically and "socialized medicine" in general. Sure, such systems cost less to society. But that assumes you want everyone in a society to have health care, even those who do not "perform" economically. If you just want the ones who can afford health care out-of-pocket to live - the upper caste -why, they can pay for themselves, no need for high taxes! In this sense, the more expensive health care gets, the better. It makes Social Darwinism that much more "effective."

Liberals always wonder why the Republicans want to "kill the goose that lays the golden eggs" They can't understand why a party controlled by rich corporate CEO's focused on profit would want a sick, uneducated ignorant, impoverished, demoralized workforce. But conservatives know better. They know there will be only be jobs for the "cognitive elite," and if they don't have to pay to keep the rest of us useless eaters alive they can spend their money on better things, like $16,000 umbrella stands and 1.5 million dollar Lucien Freud paintings.

I think the Republicans see what I have seen on this blog - increasing automation and a die-off due to declining resources and deteriorating economic conditions. They want to make sure the "right" people die off, and getting rid of those pesky social programs that were useful to the bottom line in the age of American mass industrialization is the place to start! They were useful once, but now they're just costing valuable money! After all, there are plenty of Chinese workers to build their stuff, and plenty of Mexicans to clean their houses and cook their food. The rest of us are dead weight. And expensive education as the gateway to the shrinking job base of the future is all a part of the plan. They will make sure that it -along with education and health care, do not get "fixed." From their standpoint, that's exactly what their preferred candidates are doing.
When you look at it this way, and only this way, do the action of republican candidates make complete sense. Maybe it's time we start realizing their game plan. As I've said before - it's the final solution for the working classes. Too bad the American working classes seem determined to help their jailers herd them onto boxcars.

I wrote about this topic before here:

Paul Krugman makes some useful points about the Times article


  1. I remember thinking, during the one economics course taken in college, that all Capital really strives for are monopoly and cheap labor that dies off shortly after middle age, and that higher education was just about connections. And that throughout human history, more than enough is never enough for the owners/rulers.

  2. Exactly, and theoretically you would have a political class that cares about the health of society and reigns in the rapacity of the "free" market. Take that away so there is no check on exploiting people for profit and you have a recipe for social collapse.

    I occasionally listen to this podcast called "Two Beers With Steve." It was just some guy in Illinois who had discovered Chris Martenson. Lately he seems to have been seduced by the libertarian free market fundamentalism of the Austrian school, meaning that the Koch Brothers' money has been well spent - they're getting even more dissemination of their ideas for free. He did a three part series on "Economics in one Lesson", some screed from the "Von Mises Institute." Well, my one lesson is this: the rich will screw over everyone else every chance they get. Once upon a time people understood that. A lot of money has been spent making sure they forget.

  3. I just found your blog from the Ran Prieur post. Read all the way back to this entry since yesterday.

    This stuff is on another level. Fantastic. Please keep it up, I'll keep reading.

    1. Thank you very much! And watch out for Barf Vader...


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